fishing for smelt  through the icePerhaps the smallest of fish pursued by Michigan anglers, rainbow smelt are native to the Atlantic Coast. They were planted in Crystal Lake in Benzie County in 1912 and they made their way into Lake Michigan.

Like salmon, smelt run upstream to spawn and for many years, smelt provided a recreational opportunity to anglers who netted them with dip nets at night in Great Lakes tributaries. Smelt populations in the Great Lakes are no longer as large as they once were and smelt dipping has suffered accordingly. The best smelt dipping these days is in Upper Peninsula streams.

But an unusual hook-and-line fishery has developed during the winter. Using lights at night to draw smelt up from the bottom, anglers using tiny hooks tipped with insect larvae (primarily spikes and wax worms) catch smelt in a handful of inland lakes and some Great Lakes bays. bucket of smeltTypically, the action begins near bottom just before or right at dark and as evening progresses, the fish move higher in the water column. A good depth finder helps anglers zoom in on the appropriate depth for fishing.

The best-known hook-and-line smelt fisheries are Crystal, Higgins and Green Lake (Grand Traverse County) as well as in Keweenaw Bay near Baraga. But other lakes with good smelt populations include Lake Charlevoix, Gratiot Lake (Keweenaw County), and Dodge and Island Lakes in Schoolcraft County.

For more information on identifying characteristics for smelt see our fish ID page.

Also see Smelt Dipping and Fishing Opportunities for what you'll need to go smelt fishing and when to go smelt fishing.